Adapting to Adversity

“Be water, my friend.”

Bruce Lee


A young Bruce Lee was learning the ropes of Wing Chun, a branch of Kung Fu which focused on winning through calmness and minimum action. It required a great deal of self-mastery, as one had to adapt to their opponent’s movements instead of aggressively taking the offensive.

Lee struggled to put the lessons into practice. He found that whenever he was in combat with an opponent, his mind would get easily riled up. He would get angry and disquieted, making himself vulnerable to his opponent’s blows. All he wanted to do was beat his opponent to the floor. 

Lee’s teacher, Ip Man noticed that Lee wasn’t quite grasping the lesson yet.

“Forget about yourself and follow the opponent’s movement,” he told Lee. “Let your mind do the countermovement without deliberation. Detach and just relax.”

“Aha!,” Lee thought to himself. “That’s the secret — I must relax!”

But Lee still wasn’t there yet.

Seeing Lee becoming increasingly frustrated with himself, Ip Man told him to go home.

“Lee, follow nature and don’t interfere with her ways. Never assert yourself against nature: never be in frontal opposition to any problem, but swing with it,” he said. “Don’t practice this week. Go home and think.”

Once he was at home, Lee found it impossible to stay still. Recalling his teacher’s advice only made him even more discouraged with himself. After meditating for hours, Lee finally gave up. He decided to sail alone on a boat, hoping it would take his mind off of the whole ordeal.

Yet, even as he was at sea, Ip Man’s words were still very much on his mind. His anger suddenly mounted, and he punched the water as hard as he could.

And right there and then, Lee experienced satori —  a moment of sudden realization.

As reflected, “Wasn’t this water, the very basic stuff, the essence of kung fu? I struck it just now, but it did not suffer hurt. Again I stabbed at it with all my might, yet it was not wounded. I then tried to grasp a handful of it, but it was impossible. This water, the softest substance in the world, could fit itself into any container. Although it seemed weak, it could penetrate the hardest substances in the world. That was it! I wanted to be like the nature of water.”

While Lee was still immersed in his realization, a seagull flew over his boat, emitting its reflection onto the water.

“Right then as I was absorbing myself, another mystic sense of hidden meaning started upon me. Shouldn’t it be the same, then, that the thoughts and emotions I had in front of an opponent pass like the reflection of the bird flying over the water? This was exactly what Master Ip meant by being detached…In order to control myself, I must first accept myself by going with and not against my nature.”

Lee laid back in his boat with a sense of peace. No longer did he feel a strong impulse to control the world around him. Instead, he saw beauty in understanding the ways of Nature, and adapting himself to them.

He spent the rest of that moment on his boat as it sailed freely.

It’s in our nature as human beings to want control. We want power over our environment, we want to be able to determine or change events. Yet, every time adversity hits, it’s a painful reminder that that’s not how the world works.

Cue in Murphy’s Law — “anything that can go wrong will go wrong”. When something doesn’t go our way, we get panicked, we get caught off guard, we’re crestfallen.

The antidote to this, whether in life or work, is to train ourselves to be adaptable. At its root, this means emptying our mind of preconceptions and prejudgments.

Only once we see things as they are, instead of worse than they are, are we able to adapt ourselves to them and turn them into opportunities. At this point, we are at our most resourceful — this is when we get our best ideas.  

As the famed musician John Lennon wrote, “In order to receive the ‘wholly spirit’, i.e., creative inspiration (whether you are labeled an artist, scientist, mystic, psychic, etc.), the main ‘problem’ was emptying the mind.”

You might think that being in crisis or adversity requires a different state of mind than when you are in peace. But that’s not what the great martial artists such as Bruce Lee believed. In their view, if one masters and trains themselves, they would constantly be in a state of calm and stillness. They would not be easily roused by fear, anger, or surprise. 

In whatever you do, maintain this sense of calm flexibility. Instead of reacting impulsively, increase your reaction time — take action only once you’ve cooled down and regained your clarity and composure. And adapt yourself to the hidden opportunities that a crisis could bring. 

To borrow Bruce Lee’s advice, “Be soft, yet not yielding. Be firm, yet not hard.”

Above all, “Be water, my friend.”

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